From an unknown small-school rookie to a new sack-master in KC, Breakout Live reveals the top breakout defenders from the 2018 NFL season.
Colts GM Chris Ballard knew what he was doing when he made Darius Leonard the 36th overall pick in the 2018 Draft. Leonard came with little fanfare playing in the MEAC at South Carolina State. There’s no question the Colts got the steal of the draft in Leonard, who led the NFL in tackles his rookie season with 163. Only two other players hit the 140 mark. In just his 2nd game as a pro, Leonard blistered the Redskins with 19 tackles and a sack, causing a collective “Whoa!” around the league. It’s fun looking back at his NFL draft bio. “Chance to become NFL starter.” As well as leading the NFL in tackles, Leonard had 7 sacks and 4 forced fumbles becoming the heart and soul of the Colts ascending defense. Snubbed by the Pro Bowl that lit a fire under Leonard, the writers got it right making him a first team all-pro.
The 3rd year corner from Baylor was a revelation for the Dolphins defense in 2018. Howard quietly became one of the NFL’s handful of shutdown corners, tying for the league lead with 7 interceptions along with Kyle Fuller and Damontae Kazee. Yet Howard picked his 7 passes in just 12 games while missing the last 4 with a meniscus tear. Howard’s breakout season garnered a 2nd team all-pro selection and his first starting Pro Bowl honors, where he picked a pass and nearly had a second. Playing on just a $1.95 million contract, Howard is looking to parlay his incredible campaign into the richest contract ever for a corner.
In just 11 starts, Chris Jones amassed 15.5 sacks, good for 3rd in the NFL behind only the Rams Aaron Donald and the Texans J.J. Watt. The Chiefs 2nd rounder from the 2016 Draft out of Mississippi State started the season sackless over his first 4 outings, only to come out of nowhere to post 15.5 sacks over his next 11 games. From Week 5 through 16 Jones had at least 1 sack in every game, giving him an 11-game sack streak. Playing as part of the 31st-ranked defense, Jones and the Chiefs notched 52 sacks, tying for the league lead with Pittsburgh. Jones career year found him with first team honors as a first time all-pro.
Leighton Vander Esch
Many eyebrows were raised when the Cowboys made the linebacker from Boise State their first round selection. Already stacked at the position with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys opted to add another arrow to the quiver. Jerry Jones looked like a genius as the oft-injured Lee would be so again, paving the way for Vander Esch to show his wares. The self-proclaimed Wolf Hunter justified himself as the 19th overall pick by leading the top 10 Cowboys defense in tackles with 140, good for 3rd in the league behind fellow Colts rookie Darius Leonard and the Packers Blake Martinez. Vander Esch was named as a Pro Bowl replacement for his idol Luke Kuechly and found himself with 2nd team all-pro honors.
The former Florida State Seminole, once thought to be a top 10 talent in the draft, precipitously fell into the Chargers’ laps at 17 overall. James refused to work out for NFL teams leading up to the draft, which may have been the reason for his dropping to the middle of the first round. While he may not have worked out for NFL teams, he definitely worked out for the Chargers, helping the Bolts to a 12-4 record and divisional round playoff appearance. James played like a veteran from day one. The rookie displayed savvy and guile en route to a season that saw him post 105 combined tackles, 13 passes defensed, 3.5 sacks and 3 interceptions. The free safety played his way into Pro Bowl and 1st team all-pro honors.